In the few short months that I've been the Culture Editor here at Smile Politely, I've heard this section described (and I've described it to others) in various ways, "the place where other sections go to die" being one of my faves (ahem... Tech). But truly, this section represents life here in Chambana. We're a wonderfully diverse community, and in a year that seems to have painted our differences as liabilities, I like to think this section has been and can continue to be a place to celebrate and embrace them.

And you know, a place to point out the weird. 'Cause there's a lot of that too.  

Here's our best from this year. — Julie McClure

BEST development potential
Park in Downtown Champaign, hotel in Downtown Urbana, Midtown Plaza in Midtown

There is so much happening around the center portions of three areas of Champaign-Urbana (which, you know, might be part of the problem, but that's another discussion) — Downtown Champaign, Downtown Urbana, and Midtown Champaign. All of 'em have some serious things on the radar in the next handful of years. If all goes well, we'll have:

  • a brand spankin' new park in Downtown Champaign where that dreadful parking lot exists by the Orpheum Theater
  • a new Hilton boutique hotel taking over the black hole that is the Landmark Hotel in Downtown Urbana
  • a ballin' new residential area in Midtown Plaza to plug humans into that area of C-U that is currently very sad in a lot of ways

With that said — they all win BEST because there's a ton of promise in those developments. Let's just hope that they get done, and in the right ways, because all three will do wonders in their own ways for their respective areas. (PS)

BEST place to GET THC (HERE)
NuMed

I love advertising. When it is good, it is fucking good. Like this gem of a billboard that NuMed has going around town — sure, they shelled out the wazoo for them, but they are just telling us one thing: Get yr THC here. Who cares about the rest of the text! Honestly, I kind of wish they only said GET THC HERE, because of a variety of reasons. Most importantly, good advertising is smart, and while they are showcasing how their products provide pain relief for their patients — most importantly it answers the question everyone asks when they see "NuMed", which is, "what is this place?" (PS)

BEST showcase of local democracy
Rallies for cause

The election of 2016 really just sucked. Big time. We're stuck with at worst a dangerous and at best an ignorant president and we seem to be living in some kind of horrifying reality show. But democracy isn't dead...yet. The national movements we've seen over the past several months have been mirrored right here in C-U. We've seen local political activism like never before, from seasoned activists and from people who have never called a member of congress, marched, or participated in a rally (to be completely honest, I'm one of them). Beginning with the local Women's March, we've also seen our community come out in full force to March for Science, protest the president's travel ban, and rally outside in cold rain and blazing heat to press Rodney Davis about healthcare and other issues. Let's hope the momentum continues because we're in for a long haul. (JEM)

BEST anniversary
Habitat for Humanity turning 25

There are numerous charitable organizations in town, but few are as well established or influential as Habitat. Since the Champaign County H4H got its start in 1992, they have built 100 homes for local families. What makes H4H great their ability to create connections in the community and empower the families that they are serving. Each build relies on local volunteers as well as hands-on help from the future occupants of the home. In the past year, this Christian organization launched an interfaith build project with more than twenty local faith groups signing on, including Illini Hillel and the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center. Community collaboration, encouraging financial stability, empowering families... here's to another 25 years. (JEM)

BEST movement in local government
Representation of women in local politics

Girls... scratch that... intelligent and accomplished women run the world here in C-U. We had three women vying for Urbana mayor in the democratic primary, resulting in both of our twin cities being led by women. Also, for the first time ever, the Champaign City Council has a female majority. Of course gender does not predetermine their effectiveness, but it's promising to see this shift. One that we will hopefully be seeing more of locally as well as nationally. (JEM)

BEST billboard campaign
Spiros Law P.C.

Let me be so 100% clear on this one: this is rare for me.

Most of the time, billboards affect me the same way as web ads do: it only works if it appeals to you at the very moment you see it. That’s OK. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

These billboards work. I drive by, and I am literally entranced. The concept of a word, just one word, big and bold, surrounded by negative space, is damned powerful.

My only change would be for them to not even put Spiros Law on there. That would be so baller. It’d destroy. (SF)

BEST chain to hit Champaign
Portillo's

How do I love thee, let me count the ways? Ever since my first run in with the deliciousness that is Portillo's many years ago in some southwest suburb of Chicago, I've longed to have one here in our midst. Over the years I've grown snobbish in my dining choices. With so many wonderful local options, I tend to turn up my nose at chain restaurants. But man do I love this place, and I know I'm not alone. The community has been buzzing since the first whiff of their possible opening in Champaign. During their soft opening/training events my social media feeds were filled with talk of golden tickets and chocolate cake. That cake alone is worth venturing into the traffic cluster that is North Prospect. (JEM)

BEST festival with broader cultural significance
Matsuri by Japan House

There's a point when you're living in Champaign-Urbana where one realizes that there are a lot of pretty awful events. That's not to say that this place has no awesome events, but, you know — there's a lot of filler. That's totally OK, we live in a society where there are a variety of events and traditions. That said, this one, Matsuri Festival by Japan House at the U of I should be treasured as one of the marquee events not just in C-U, but in the Midwest in a lot of ways. There are cornerstone events annually around here — ELLNORA, Illinois Marathon, Pygmalion, Ebertfest, to name a few — and Japan House's Matsuri celebration is making its way into that discussion. The festival takes place every August, and truly encompasses what a great all-ages event should be, and with a little more attention and the right people saying "YES!" — this thing could be absolutely next level good. It should be recognized as a crown jewel event in C-U, without question. (PS)

BEST cultural outreach
Meet your Muslim Neighbor

Kudos to the Muslim American Society of Urbana-Champaign for providing learning opportunities for the community through several Meet your Muslim Neighbor events. In a year when their religion has been more politicized and stigmatized than ever, these events were an excellent reminder that C-U is a pocket of diversity here in the midst of the cornfields. In today's vitriolic climate it's essential that we get to know those around us who may have different beliefs, but who are trying to live their lives, raise their families, and contribute to the community. (JEM)

BEST reason to keep reading The News-Gazette
Tom Kacich

This one is just so worthy of praise, from the perspective of a publisher and here-and-there writer. 

Tom Kacich is a monster. He’s sort of a jack of all trades — does reporting still, which I like. But it’s #Mailbag on Fridays — Jesus, that hashtag cracks me up — is the stuff of brilliance. For the first time since Don Dodson was at his A-game with “It’s Your Business”, there’s a weekly round-up (that isn’t arts/culture — don’t worry Mimi, we see you) that is so worth its salt. 

I never miss it. It’s basically one of the best ways to keep up with what’s coming and going around here, and always — always — just traipses into the past for a glimpse at once was.

Yes, I’ve said it before and I will say it again — the man taught me how to throw a curveball (he and John Joyce) in Little League — but it’s honestly not about that. He’s an excellent read, every time. Worthy of BEST in this town, by a mile. (SF)

BEST park
All of them

Yes, you read that correctly — all of the parks in C-U win BEST because, out of pure recognition, they deserve your attention. Both Champaign Park District and Urbana Park District do such incredible work in mantaining and promoting their parks to the humans that live in this area, and they shouldn't be taken for granted. Like anything, if you're not careful and give credit where credit is due, things can go away quickly. Visit a park, literally any of them, sometime soon. And no, I don't mean that micro park that is near your house — I mean really go visit one. Meadowbrook. Crystal Lake. Hessel. West Side. The list goes on and on. Literally go to one and walk around and shit. Paying attention is half the battle. (PS)

BEST yoga event that isn't just yoga
Yoga with Goats

No longer is yoga just yoga... breathing, stretching, posing. No, now it's yoga, with a thing. I've seen Sip and Stretch (yoga with beer), Wine and Yoga, Laughing Yoga, Yoga in the Park, Acro Yoga, Glow Yoga, and I'm sure that's just a small sampling. The most interesting new yoga incarnation takes place in one of my favorite local destinations. Maggie Taylor, co-owner of Delight Flower Farm, is also a yoga instructor. And the flower farm is located adjacent to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, home to hundreds of goats. So why not Yoga with Goats? Apparently C-U agrees...why not? They have already sold out three sessions this summer. Though it's not quite the peaceful, meditative tone of a typical yoga practice, it's sure to lighten your mood and make you feel better about life. (JEM)

BEST hire
Dr. Susan Zola as Unit 4 Superintendent

As a Unit 4 parent and former teacher, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better choice than Dr. Zola for superintendent. Champaign-Urbana is a uniquely diverse community, and that is reflected in our schools. As someone who has devoted her career to serving students in C-U, and whose children have come up through Unit 4, Dr. Zola has an inside perspective on the specific needs of the students in the district. As a parent of a child with special needs, she can, as she stated in an interview with Seth earlier this year, "hear the heart of parents" who also deal with the day to day struggles of advocating for their children. She's been in the trenches as a teacher and principal, and has been a fixture at Mellon. Yep. She gets it. I look forward to seeing the district flourish with Dr. Zola at the helm. (JEM)

BEST statues
Allerton Park

There aren't enough compliments you can issue to Allerton Park, which is arguably the most beautiful place in all of Downstate Illinois. I'd put it up against just about anything. But beyond the beauty of the natural components of the park lie the statues that exist out there. Sun Singer, Fu Dogs, and just endless others that exist out there — these aspects of the park make it an undeniable gem in the region. (PS)

BEST latrines
Esquire Lounge's restrooms downstairs

When I learned about this bathroom at Esquire way back when, it kind of blew my mind. I didn't know that the Esquire used to be a portion fo the size that it is at current — and with that, there were bathrooms that I had no clue even existed. If you're in the southern-most portion of the establishment, back near the condiments — there's a stairway down, which leads to restrooms. Are they the nicest restrooms? HELL no. Not even remotely. But they are certainly ones that you wouldn't know existed if you weren't looking closely enough. Most think that the restrooms exist on the main floor, but when you find these, you probably will prefer to use these more. Tom has visited some really great ones (holy hell, I love(d) the Illini Inn, but gross), but this one is tops. Er, bottoms, maybe.

Shit, that doesn't sound great either.

I'm gonna stop typing now. Bye. (PS)

BEST cooperative effort between Park Districts
Sholem + Crystal Lake Pools
 

This one started as a WORST submission.

It was a topic of fairly great debate over Memorial Day weekend, between dear friends. It was our first real — ”oh shit, we all have kids now, let’s go away to somewhere with water and bring them” type of trip. And the conclusion we arrived to was simple:

“Why can’t I buy a pool pass that extends to both Sholem and Crystal Lake?”

And that’s true, you can’t buy a pass that offers limitless visits to both public pools / water park things in either city.

There are reasons for that. They were explained to me in great detail, and frankly, I will spare those here, but they were all founded, and cogent. Trust me.

The good news is that you you can get the Resident rate for both places. $6 a visit. But if you buy a punch card, it’s like, $5 a visit. That’s cheap, really.

You can buy a membership to either, and for a family of four, you’d pay like $3 a head if you just go 17 times, which, by the looks of it, seem more than possible. This summer is gonna be a heater.

Anyhow, seriously, WHY can’t you just buy a pass to both?

It’s a money issue. Of course it’s a money issue. We don’t pay enough in property taxes, collectively, to be able to earn the sort of surplus that makes Park District Commissioners go… “Hey, why not! It’s all gravy anyhow…”

Nope, that’s not us. Could it be us? Could we not just all agree that we’d be willing to spend a few extra bucks per year to better fund ALL of the things that we ALL care about so much through some local goddamned taxes?

No?

That’s too bad. The people who run your parks, who manage your roads and schools, the teachers, cops, firefighters, city employees, groundskeepers, street sweepers, electricians, the folks that run our (almost) non-existent arts programming, blah blah blah, blah blah — they all thank you.

They all won’t complain about having to work for cheap and within an underfunded system. And on the rare occasion that they do, they won’t make a stink. They’ll keep doing the best they can. They are your friends and neighbors, remember?

Anyhow, really, truly. Keep complaining about the amount of local taxes you pay. Really, you should do it. You sound great. Keep that up. (SF)

BEST movement
Urbana's First Fridays 

Urbana! Where have you been all my life? As a Champaignite (Champaignian?) I often overlook all that you have to offer. Maybe I'd venture over for Courier, Black Dog (then we got one), possibly a bike ride at Meadowbrook. And while I've always loved the Urbana vibe, Champaign has had the edge on entertainment, commerce, food offerings, etc. But Imbibe Urbana is seeking to change that mindset. This local duo has made it a point to showcase the greatness of their town through Urbana First Fridays. Beginning last September, this monthly event has been an amazing movement that has gained momentum along the way. If you take a look at the their latest flyer, it seems like the entire city of Urbana has signed on to take part with sales, demonstrations, food and drink specials and more. I see you Urbana and I like what you're doing. (JEM)

BEST way to drink and learn
Astronomy on Tap

Astronomy on Tap is a fairly new-ish monthly event that takes place in Urbana, typically at Pizza M (though there are exceptions, for instance the Pygmalion appearance last year). It combines a couple of ideas: drinking beer, and learning about, eh, astronomy. Learning can feel so stuffy sometimes, and even though the Astronomy on Tap sessions at Pizza M are mostly family-friendly, you can drink alcohol there. Seriously! It is actually encouraged that you do. Obviously you totally do not have to, but life is more fun with a beer in hand. 

In today's world where some people actually believe the world is flat fer chrissakes — learning about our surroundings on a macro scale — universe style — is super important. These all-ages family-friendly drinker-friendly events are pretty awesome and should be held up. (PS)

BEST Instagram Robot
Koester & Bradley, LLP

Honestly, this has been one of the wackiest things to happen on the internet locally in quite some time. At least, from my estimation, as a frequent Instagram user not just for this magazine, but for my own personal usage. Let me tell you, for a while there, Koester & Bradley LLP had the strangest robot working their account. I shit you not — here are some common responses that were recorded on our account:

  • "Nice post, keep it up!"
  • "This is awesome!"
  • "Very cool."
  • "Such a great post!"

The list goes on and on, I swear to you. Not only that, but their posts are so bizarre — mostly about weird candle fragrances and some vinyl LPs. Is this a real person? No, it can't be. If it was, lord help us because that was a remarkable amount comments for one single non-android. (PS)

BEST housecleaning
Josh Whitman canning two coaches in as many weeks

Josh Whitman is not fucking around, y'all. You might disagree with what he's done, or how he has gone about doing it, but let's not forget — Illinois Athletics in the big dollar arena has absolutely been piss poor for years now. Literally YEARS. So, let's check the sympathy for the dismissed, and focus on how baller it was to clean house in such a short span of time. John Groce was a good coach in a lot of ways, but couldn't get the big wins at the right time. Then, he canned Bollant. This doesn't even bring in Illini Football to the discussion, so we'll see how good these moves were in a few years I suppose, but for now, look at that stone cold look from that man above and appreciate that he won't take losses well. (PS)

BEST goof
Rex Bradfield voting for a dem

You cannot vote in the opposite party's primary if you're a candidate for the same election. You cannot vote in the opposite party's primary if you're a candidate for the same election. You cannot vote in the opposite party's primary if you're a candidate for the same election. You cannot vote in the opposite party's primary if you're a candidate for the same election. You cannot vote in the opposite party's primary if you're a candidate for the same election. You cannot vote in the opposite party's primary if you're a candidate for the same election.

Finally: You cannot vote in the opposite party's primary if you're a candidate for the same election. (PS)

BEST dog
Urbana's Westminster dog

I have parents who are dog show people. They raise dogs, breed them, show them, and travel all over the U.S. judging them. I know what a big deal the Westminster dog show is. So it's pretty sweet that this year's winner has ties here in C-U. Rumor, named after the Adele song "Rumor Has It", is co-owned by Busey C.E.O and President Van Dukeman and his wife, Patti. Apparently he beat out a dog that looks like a mop and that also has 95 best in show titles. Unfortunately, the dog show star isn't available for local appearances. She lives in Wisconsin with her handler and other co-owner. (JEM)

BEST parallel roads
University and Church between Mattis and Neil Street

I consider the area west of Downtown Champaign one of the very best neighborhoods in all of C-U. It is honestly such a beautiful area of town, with historic old homes that haven't been destroyed by the cookie cutter society that we live in — manufacturing home after home that look identical.

If you've ever spent any amount of time observing this area of town, you'll notice these historic homes, the cobblestone roads, the overhanging trees, and so much more. The two main streets that connect the west portion near Mattis and the region closest to Downtown are Church Street, running west, and University Avenue, running east. Both one way. Both two main lanes with cars parked all alongside, sometimes on both sides. Both with beautiful yards, oftentimes acting as a distraction to the road ahead.

I find myself driving down these two roads fairly often based on where I live, and just appreciating how they encapsulate the reasons why I care about this city. Just take a drive down them. It might not blow you away, but when the sun peeks through the trees and shines on the pavement, and you have your windows down cruising, you might feel something similar. (PS)

BEST way to make a weird statue funny
Humpty Dumpty looking stoned on Halloween

For being such a polarizing statue in Downtown Champaign (next to Esquire) — Humpty Dumpty has taken on some interesting things in his short lifespan thus far. He's faced is fair share of criticism, and I think that would make anyone stressed OUT. So, sit back and light that J, brah. It is legal in a few states now, and hopefully Illinois soon enough. Dude was RIPPED on Halloween. Just look at this man! (PS)

BEST gameshow contestants
U of I students destroying Jeopardy!

I know students that attend and graduate from the University of Illinois are smart, but good god — cleaning up on Jeopardy! to the tune of $486,000? My goodness. That's exactly what happened when Pranjal Vachaspati and Seth Wilson did what one would call "cleaning their clock" and walking away with a ton of cash. (PS)

BEST news for travelers
United flights being added at Willard

Listen: I know, I KNOW — United Airlines isn't having a great year. There was some bad shit that they did, and got some very bad backlash, which was well deserved. But when it comes to flights around here, there's no other way to say it: it is slim pickins in Champaign County. Now, there's an additional carrier at Willard, and with more to come (in terms of flights), so this is great progress for traveling to and from C-U. This is worth giving some hoo-rah to. (PS)

BEST local celebrity
Josh George

Have you ever met Josh George? Dude is honestly the nicest and friendliest guy on the face of the Earth. Does he have to be? Hell no, he's out there winning in the Olympics, he totally does not have to be. He's in BMW commercials, and sponsored by all sorts of companies nowadays, and with that comes zero ego on his end. Super humble and if you ever get a chance to talk to him, you absolutely should. It isn't very often that gold medalists are just hanging out in Champaign-Urbana. I totally could've used one of his racing pictures here as well, but I thought that this cat perched on his shoulders would've been more fitting, and smile-inducing, for the sake of this BEST entry. (PS)

BEST tech venture
Veriflow

Veriflow just set up shop in Downtown Champaign, where they will have an office full of people who are a part of this very successful venture at this point in time. A product of the Research Park, and one that has received a large sum of money from funders over the course of the last few years, this is one of the most promising ventures in recent memory in C-U tech. (PS)

Contributors to this article include Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.